Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Movie Time

It’s that time of year many of us look forward to each spring—time for the Wisconsin Film Festival! An annual tradition since 1999, the festival packs more films into more downtown theaters and venues than one could hope to take in over a four-day period. But many of us are going to try our best to see as many as possible.

The one person who has seen all the films to be showcased this year is festival director Meg Hamel. The film fanatic and longtime Madisonian recently revealed what it’s like to put on the event—and whether she ever tires of watching movies.

How did you get involved in the film festival in the first place?

I had attended film festivals in other cities when visiting friends. During the first two years of the Wisconsin Film Festival in 1999 and 2000, I was actually in Istanbul at the film festival there. Our local festival was getting bigger and I heard about the call for volunteers, so I decided to sign up and help put on this show. I think there were about thirty-five volunteers that year, compared to over two hundred now.

What were your biggest challenges when you became director of the festival?

I was hired about four months before the 2006 festival, so by far the biggest challenge was just trying to figure out what to do, and how to do it in a really short time. It was the only staff position for the festival, so there was no such thing as training. I just had to fly by the seat of my pants trying to understand what needed to be done each day. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever tackled in my life, and to be honest I have barely any memories of that time. It was so grueling my brain has just erased most of it. It was really a miracle that there was a festival that year, mostly due to the contributions of the many people who give their time and expertise to make it happen, especially the staff of the UW Department of Communication Arts and everyone at the venues that host the festival.

On a different level, there was also the challenge of following Mary Carbine’s very successful role as the original festival director. Anyone who has been the second in any position knows that this presents its own special decisions. What elements should continue on because they quintessentially define this festival and are the right thing to do? What can be changed to open up new ideas and grow in different directions? That process definitely continues on. Each year little adjustments are made in procedures or features of the festival, while keeping the identity of the Wisconsin Film Festival consistent and meaningful.

How do you choose the films to be shown?

It’s terrifically complex, actually, since there are so many separate criteria that I’m juggling. Sometimes I look for films that I think will meet the audience’s expectations in a particular way, bringing stories that continue certain themes that have been successful in the past, like Scandinavian stories or music-themed documentaries. Madison in particular is a good home for international and social-justice stories, and I do want people to leave the theater learning something about the world we live in. And of course we want to find films with local connections, like our opening night film 500 Days of Summer, and support emerging filmmakers by bringing key new work to the screen, and present films made by master directors around the world which wouldn’t otherwise play here … The list goes on.

Each year the festival partners with programs across campus to find films that can form featured series, so I’m also scouting for good candidates for these. For the disabilities series, copresented with the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, that means searching out films made in the last year or so that explore the landscape of disabilities. We probably watch three or four times as many candidates than what makes the final selection. There really is a lot of time and effort that goes into picking just the right combination of films that work for this festival.

And tied into all of this are the circumstances of new films: Are they available yet for a festival screening? Is there a print of the film available for our dates? Is it being held to play at “A-list” festivals and not possible for us? Can we afford the screening fees of some titles?

What makes for a good movie? What trends are you seeing in films today?

Technology plays a large role in the creation of the motion picture art form. Changes in technology are affecting both the stories that can be made and how we present them. Many of your readers may have already seen stories about how improved video cameras and editing systems can make it easier for filmmakers to create good-looking work for less money. What this can mean for a festival, though, may be less obvious. With so many titles available on digital video only, it becomes a little harder to find good films available to us on 35mm film. Some of our theaters are set up to play the good old traditional 35mm film only (like the Orpheum). For most of our video theaters, we rent high-end projection systems and install in that space just for our festival (like the Bartell).

Last year we played all 35mm film in the Wisconsin Union Theater. This year we’re showing all digital video, including the first high-definition video system that we’ve used as a festival. That’s a new adventure for me, to figure out what kind of equipment to rent, how to install and ensuring that all the screenings will go off without a hitch. It’s a lot more expensive than using the film projection equipment already in the Union, but we have to make this change to accommodate the format that filmmakers are using now.

How many films do you screen each year for the festival? Do you get sick of watching movies?

I don’t track the number of individual titles, but it’s many times more than the 198 titles in this year’s festival. Far more films do not make the final program, either because they’re not right for our festival, or their schedule prevents them from being included. I don’t get sick of watching movies, but I do look forward to the times of the festival year that are more hands-on and active. So much of festival planning each year is pretty solitary: hundreds of emails each day followed by three or four films each night after I come home from work.

Watching movies is also not a finite part of the job. I pressure myself to keep looking for more, for better stories, to uncover hidden gems. This process can be never-ending, and so I always welcome the time when I have to discipline myself to lock down the schedule, confirm everything and move on to the other parts of festival planning.

Also, it’s hard to make decisions—like film selections—far in advance of the festival without really knowing what the results will be. Will people like the films? What will the weather be? Can we cover our expenses? The best part of the whole year is the festival week itself, because all decisions get boiled down into something concrete. No more guesswork, it’s just about anticipating problems and fixing them when they happen. Instead of just planning and hoping and wondering, I get to haul heavy equipment and do things with my hands. That’s really satisfying.

How does the Wisconsin Film Festival compare to other film festivals?

Film festival are so different from each other, it’s hard to make comparisons. What’s notable about this festival, though, is the commitment of the audience in relation to the size of the festival structure. There aren’t many festivals that are only four days and draw 30,000 attendees. The credit for that goes to the people here in Wisconsin who make the choice to spend their weekend watching movies. Without them, there is no festival.

Other differences exist. I tend to not focus energy into giving out lots of awards to films. Although that can be really useful to newer filmmakers who are working to get their films better known, I’m trying to think more long-term and help the audience widen their interest in different film styles. Awards tend to enforce an idea that there are only a few good ones in the bunch. Both the audience and the filmmakers are better served, I think, when we all get more adventurous with what we want to see and how we can let the filmmakers’ stories affect us.

This means that some of the features that have come to be accepted as a necessary part of most film festivals don’t exist here. We don’t have high-priced VIP access to tickets, for example. That wouldn’t be very consistent with the festival’s mission as a UW education event, and I’d rather work on making the festival more open, not less so.

On the other hand, the festival program does get admired for being strong, eclectic and representing some of the most interesting films being made today. For such a little event, we do have a very good reputation in the industry for smart film selections, an organizational structure that pays our bills on time (usually) and taking care of the films and videos that we’re entrusted with. I’m able to bring films that might not be available to other festivals, simply because we’ve worked so hard in the past to keep our promises and deliver a really good show to the audience.

What’s new to this year’s festival?

The HD projection in the Union is one of the biggest changes. But the festival itself is entirely new each year. Every single film is newly chosen just for this event, and the audience is going to be treated to a full and bursting schedule of great motion pictures.

What’s your goal for the film festival—this year and beyond?

The goal for each festival is just doing it. My whole year—both my work life and my personal life, since they are really the same thing—is focused on producing this four-day event, so there’s a lot of pressure to do it right, not get sick and make it brilliant.

I do look ahead to possibly making the festival cover more than just four days. So many more movies to bring to Madison! And I’d like to do more events through the year. Madison should have a children’s film festival and an LGBT film festival and a food film festival and more. I’d like to do more to support local film production in the state and create opportunities for younger students to discover a higher caliber of motion pictures in middle school and high school.

When I took this job, my sister Amy told me, “Go big or go home.” I'm doing my best to follow her advice.

For more information on the Wisconsin Film Festival, including film descriptions and schedules, visit

Images—of the films 500 Days of Summer, Treeless Mountain, Being Bucky, Darius Goes West, The Beetle and A Winter of Frozen Dreams—are courtesy of the Wisconsin Film Festival.